[ Stories from Dr. Yukari ]
A young man went to a special retreat for Vietnam War veterans in Northern California. The quiet man was still in his late 20’s at the time. He returned from the war almost with no physical injuries, but he was both emotionally and mentally disturbed suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He was on constant alert with a severe form of anxiety. He never slept soundly after his return. Even during the walking meditation exercise at the retreat, he made sure he had distance from other people. He was constantly preparing for an imaginary ambush. While his body left Vietnam, he was mentally still in the war zone.
This young man had unspeakable experiences in Vietnam. He briefly told the story to his mother but her only response was, “it was not your fault. It was the war.”
While his scouting group was patrolling a mountainous region in Vietnam, they were ambushed and his entire group was killed. The young man was the only survivor. It happened so fast and he was unable to help any fellow soldiers. From this devastating event, he swore revenge. He made sandwiches using precious American bread incorporating various lethal ingredients that came from bombs. He packaged sandwiches and left them under a tree in the same village where his friends were massacred. Soon enough, village children found these sandwiches and started consuming them. The young man watched them from a hiding place. The children were soon seen to be experiencing horrific pain which followed with death. Grownups rushed to help children but to no avail. The small children were seen screaming for help in agony.
After returning home to California, the young man could no longer sleep. Five children visited his bedroom every single night. He swore that they were not a figment of his imagination or ghosts. These figures stood, eating his sandwiches crying and screaming.
Rev. Thich Nhat Hanh looked at the young man who poisoned and killed Vietnamese children. He listened to the young man’s story. This famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk operated the retreat the young man attended. Some Vietnamese refugees also participated in this retreat. The young man shared his truth out of his deeply wounded heart. It is also important to point out that Thich Nhat Hanh is known to be the founder of engaged Buddhism and also is a leading activist of nonviolence, mindfulness, and human rights. Even Reverend Martin Luther King was once inspired by the famously known Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh became a priest when he was only 16 years old. In addition to the rigorous training, he was determined to serve people who were suffering from the aftermaths of war and famine. He later witnessed his beloved teacher Thich Quang Duc sacrifice his body, to protest against the war by pouring petrol over his head and lighting matches on the street in Saigon.
His teacher’s act deeply influenced young Thich Nhat Hanh’s mind and life’s mission. Thich Nhat Hanh felt intolerable anger when he saw his fellow monks being tortured, saw children be killed, or when he overheard an American military officer declare that the US protected Vietnamese people from communism. But soon, he realized that the real enemy was not the French, the Americans, or communism. The true enemy resides within his mind in the form of hatred, anger, discrimination, greed, and arrogance. He later spoke on his transformation by saying, “I was embracing my own enemies within my heart”. He later became a man of compassion: a monk based in action for social justice.
He spoke to thousands of Americans a few days after the 9-11 terrorist attack in order to appeal for forgiveness and non-violence. He then conducted a guided meditation practice of compassion to the US Congress.
He said to the crying young man, “what you did to these innocent children was in fact, a terrible act. But these five would never come back. Go out there and save five children. There are hundreds and thousands of children whom you can help. You can deliver one pill to save a life. You can give out an insect catching net so that they can prevent themselves from getting malaria from mosquitoes. You can give life to a starving baby by providing one bottle of milk. You are spending time indulging in self-pity while there are hundreds of ways to save children today. Now it is time to get up and go! Save five children today, save 10 tomorrow, and then save 15 children on the day after!”
I read on the internet that the young man went back to Vietnam after the Vietnam war ended. As a side note, it is also important to note that in Vietnam, the war is called the American War. The transformed young soldier set off by engaging in volunteer work taking care of war orphans. He also participated rebuilding schools and villages in Vietnam.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a scholar and activist monk and also known as a poet who describes compassion to the human heart. His poems helped thousands of wounded souls. This young man was one, and I was also one of them. Embrace your own enemy and take an action to serve others who are suffering.
He wrote in one of his poetic statements titled You Are My Garden:
I am told to take care of the garden
left to me by my ancestors.
A garden always has beautiful trees and others that are not so healthy. That is the reason why we have to take good care of it.
You are my garden, and I know that I should practice as a gardener.
I have seen an old, untended garden, where the cherry and peach trees still bloom wonderfully and always in time.
You Are My Garden was from his poem book “Call me by My True Name”
Thich Nhat Hanh is a founder of Plum Village, Buddhist Monastery in Southern France